Looking Glass Language

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Billy Wilder’s top 10 screenwriting tips

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved. Titles: The Apartment Names: Jack Lemmon, Fred MacMurray Characters: Jeff D. Sheldrake Still of Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray in The Apartment

J.D. Sheldrake: Ya know, you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you’re gonna divorce your wife. Now I ask you, is that fair?
C.C. Baxter: No, sir, it’s very unfair… Especially to your wife.

I may soon be delving into the world of scriptwriting as part of my Writing MA. So, as Billy Wilder was the co-writer and director of Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, two of the movies I’d want to have with me if I was ever stranded on a desert island, I thought I’d see if he’d shared any useful tips on the craft. Here are his top tips:

  1. The audience is fickle.
  2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
  3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  4. Know where you’re going.
  5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
  7. A tip from Lubitsch*: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
  8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
  9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.

*Ernst Lubitsch, Academy Award winning director of Heaven Can Wait, known as a master of innuendo who hated saying things the obvious way.

"You don't understand, Osgood, I'm a man."  "Well, nobody's perfect."

“You don’t understand, Osgood, I’m a man.”
“Well, nobody’s perfect.”

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2 thoughts on “Billy Wilder’s top 10 screenwriting tips

  1. I had no idea you loved these films so much. The Apartment, Some Like it Hot and The Graduate = my favourite, nostalgic top 3 🙂 x

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